Mister Roberts (1948), a play by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan, had a successful three-year run on Broadway from 1948 to 1951. It was adapted from Heggen's novel of the same name, which was published in 1946.
Mister Roberts takes place on a U.S. cargo ship that supplies the troops in the Pacific during the final months of World War II. Life on board is monotonous and tedious, and the men are frustrated and bored. They hate the tyrannical captain but feel great affection for Mr. Roberts, one of the officers. The play is mainly about Roberts's attempts to get transferred to combat duty, his relationship with his men, and his conflict with the captain. It also abounds in comic incidents, many of which originated from Heggen's real experiences aboard the USS Virgo (AKA-20), on which he served as a lieutenant from 1944 to 1945. Captain Randall of the Virgo really did have potted palm trees set proudly on his bridge, just as the fictional captain in Mister Roberts does, and these trees really were dumped overboard (by Heggen, as the story goes). As in the play, the crew of the Virgo spied on nurses in the showers, and in late 1944, Captain Randall forbad shore leave for his men the first few days the Virgo was back in San Francisco.
One of the more enduring plays to emerge from the World War II era, Mister Roberts shows, with a light touch, a side of war that is often forgotten—not the excitement or the heroism of battle, but the boredom of the men assigned to less glamorous work, where one's enemies are as often as not the officers who hold power over them, rather than the soldiers or sailors of the opposing forces.
Thomas Heggen was born December 23, 1919, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, the son of Thomas O. Heggen, a business owner, and Mina Amelia Paulson. In 1935, after the business failed during the depression, the family moved to Oklahoma. Heggen attended Oklahoma City University, Oklahoma A&M University, and the University of Minnesota. In 1941, he graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. In December that same year, Heggen was working in New York City as an editor for Reader's Digest when the United States entered World War II. He joined the U.S. Navy a few days later and was sent to an officers' training program at Notre Dame, after which he joined the tanker USS Salinas, which operated in the North Atlantic. After a six-month stay in the hospital with a serious hand injury, sustained during a fight with an officer, Heggen was assigned to another tanker, the USS Agawam, operating between New Orleans and the Caribbean. He requested a transfer and was assigned as assistant communications officer aboard the USS Virgo, a cargo and troop ship in the Pacific. On July 12, 1944, Heggen joined the Virgo at Eniwetok, in the Marshall Islands. During the fourteen months he served on the Virgo, Roberts wrote a series of amusing vignettes about day-to-day life on the ship.
Following his discharge from the Navy in 1945, Heggen was encouraged by his cousin, novelist Wallace Stegner, to submit his stories for publication. Several of his stories appeared in Atlantic Monthly and Reader's Digest, at which Heggen had returned to his old editorial job. Heggen then shaped the stories into the novel Mister Roberts, which was published in 1946. The book was well received by critics and became a bestseller. The success of the novel encouraged Heggen to adapt it into a play. Not satisfied with his own version, he enlisted the help of stage director Joshua Logan. The resulting collaboration, starring Henry Fonda as Roberts, had a successful three-year run on Broadway, from 1948 to 1951. It also won two Tony awards in 1948, one for best play and one for the authors. The play was made into a movie in 1955, starring Fonda as Roberts and featuring James Cagney and Jack Lemmon.
Heggen, however, was unable to build on his success. Despondent after his 1946 divorce from his wife Carol Lynn Gilmer, whom he had married in 1942, and unable to make progress on new projects, he began to drink to excess and to abuse prescription drugs. On May 19, 1949, Heggen was found dead in his bathtub in his New York City apartment. He had taken an overdose of barbiturates, and the death was ruled a probable suicide, although Heggen left no note. Friends believed his death was an accident, explaining that Heggen, who had been suffering from insomnia, had probably taken the drug and then fallen asleep in the bath.
Act 1, Scene 1
Mister Roberts takes place aboard the U.S. Navy cargo ship AK-601, operating in the Pacific. It begins a few weeks before V-E Day. Just after dawn, as the sleepy crew ignores the reveille call, Roberts reports to Doc that the previous night he observed a Navy task force stretching for miles on the horizon. He shows Doc a letter he has written requesting a transfer to combat duty. He writes these letters every week, but the captain never approves them. Dowdy tells Roberts the men must be given a liberty (time ashore), which they have not had for over a year, since the captain always denies their requests.
The men straggle onto the deck. Insigna discovers he can spy on the female nurses as they shower in the hospital on the island. The men all rush to see, using their binoculars. Mannion and Insigna get into a fight, and Roberts realizes he must get some shore leave for the men, to ease their frustration and boredom. The captain cancels the movie that night because a man was on deck without a shirt, a violation of orders.
Act 1, Scene 2
Roberts tells Pulver his plan to get the men ashore. He has offered a quart of whiskey, which Pulver had been hoarding in a shoebox, to the Port Director, whose job it is to decide where the ship goes next. Pulver is dismayed because he has invited one of the nurses onto the ship, and now he has no alcohol for her. Doc solves the problem by making fake Scotch out of Coca-Cola, iodine, and hair tonic. Roberts teases Pulver that he is afraid of the captain and never carries out any of the pranks he thinks up, such as putting marbles in the captain's overhead so they will roll around and keep him awake at night. In a conversation with Doc, Roberts repeats his desire to see combat. He knows the war is nearing its end.
Act 1, Scene 3
As the men load up a Navy ship with supplies, Roberts disobeys the captain's orders not to give out any fresh fruit. He also allows the men to remove their shirts. The captain summons Roberts, but Roberts sends word he is busy. The outraged captain comes on deck and picks a quarrel. He criticizes the wording in Roberts's transfer request and tells him not to write any more. He orders the men to put on their shirts, but they refuse, until Roberts tells them to do so. The captain tries to punish Roberts, saying that he will be confined to his room for ten days, but he backs down when he realizes that Roberts is indispensable to the running of the ship. The men are delighted to have observed Roberts getting the better of the hated captain.
Act 1, Scene 4
Pulver brings the nurse Miss Girard onto the ship. He pretends to have seen combat action and to be the executive officer. He tries to take her to his cabin, but on the way, they run into the men. Insigna makes a remark that reveals the men have been spying on the girls. Miss Girard verifies with a pair of binoculars what has been happening and promptly leaves, saying she has promised to help the girls put up curtains. The men are disappointed that their sport has ended, but Roberts cheers them up by announcing that they are going to Elysium Island, where they will have shore leave.
Act 1, Scene 5
As the ship approaches Elysium, the men eagerly anticipate getting off the ship. But the captain announces that because of cargo requirements and security conditions, there will be no liberty.
Act 1, Scene 6
In the captain's cabin, Roberts demands to know when the crew will be allowed to go ashore. The captain replies that the only way the crew will get liberty is if Roberts stops writing letters requesting a transfer. The captain hates Roberts but needs him. If Roberts leaves the ship, the captain will not be able to attain promotion to the rank of commander. Roberts at first refuses to go along with the captain's plan, but eventually agrees to it. The captain also gets him to promise not to talk back to him in front of the crew, or to tell anyone of their meeting.
Act 2, Scene 1
It is 3:45 A.M., and the men straggle back from shore leave. Some are drunk, while others have been injured in fights that resulted after they gate-crashed a dinner-dance for Army personnel. Roberts deals with them mildly, allowing some of the men to go back ashore. He is pleased with them because they have bonded as a crew. After more trouble ashore, the captain is ordered to report to the island commander.
Act 2, Scene 2
The captain tells Roberts they are being kicked out of the port. He orders the men to work harder and hints to Roberts that he might get a promotion if he does a good job. He gives Roberts some orders, which Roberts obeys, to the consternation of the men. Dolan produces a bulletin that says there is an urgent need for experienced officers aboard combat ships. But Roberts is reluctant to sign the letter Dolan has typed for him. The men do not understand why.
Act 2, Scene 3
The crew think that Roberts has buckled under to the captain because he wants a promotion. He has also put Dolan "on report," a disciplinary measure, which has further upset the men. Roberts begs Doc to transfer him to the hospital on the next island, but Doc refuses. After they hear an announcement on the radio that the war in Europe is over, they call for a celebration. Pulver tells of his latest scheme, to throw a firecracker under the captain's bunk. He goes to the laundry room to test it, and there is a tremendous explosion. He returns, unhurt but covered in soapsuds. Roberts wants to make another firecracker, but Pulver says he has no more materials. He is disappointed that he has let Roberts down.
Act 2, Scene 4
The men are cold towards Roberts. He apologizes to Dolan and takes him off report, but the men remain unfriendly. After the men exit, Roberts takes the palm tree from the container and throws it over the side. The captain enters, notices the absent palm tree, and orders the crew to battle stations. He demands to know who did the prank and guesses it was Roberts. Roberts denies any knowledge of it, and the captain gets so worked up he makes himself ill. After Roberts leaves the captain's cabin, the men once more treat him with respect.
Act 2, Scene 5
Roberts has gained his transfer, but he does not know how. Dolan tries to convince him that one of his old letters was finally approved, but Doc reveals that the men wrote a letter for him, forging the captain's signature. The men enter and give him a going-away present, a brass medal shaped like a palm tree, attached to a piece of gaudy ribbon.
Act 2, Scene 6
Some time has elapsed. The men are reading their mail. Pulver reads a letter from Roberts, dated three weeks earlier. He is aboard a destroyer that has been subject to four air attacks at Okinawa. He is happy to be in the war at last. He keeps the "medal" his men gave him on his desk, saying he would rather have it than a Congressional Medal of Honor. Pulver then reads another letter he has received from a friend who serves on the same ship. The letter informs him that Roberts is dead, following a Japanese suicide attack. Pulver throws the palm trees over the side, goes to the captain's cabin, and announces what he has done. Then he challenges the captain about why there is to be no movie that night.
The captain is a petty tyrant who earns the enmity of all the crewmen. He is an absurd, ridiculous figure. He insists on imposing strict regulations, such as when he gives the order that the men may not remove their shirts, even though the weather is extremely hot. He cancels the nightly movie for any small breach in regulations. The captain also suffers from class envy, hating Roberts because Roberts has a college education. The captain's smallness of mind is revealed by the fact that he cherishes the award he received, on behalf of the ship, for superior achievement in delivering supplies. The award was a potted palm tree, which he waters tenderly and displays with pride. The captain wants to build on this insignificant success and aspires to become a commander, which is why he needs Roberts to stay on the ship, since Roberts is highly competent and the captain is not.
Doc is the ship's doctor. He is between thirty-five and forty years old and possesses a wry sense of humor. Roberts confides in him frequently and the two men sometimes argue. Doc debunks Roberts's idea of heroism, saying that physical heroism is merely a reflex that occurs in a dangerous situation. He tries to persuade Roberts that he is doing as much good on the AK-601 as he would if he were in a combat zone. Doc participates in the captain's name-signing contest, and he judges it as well. He also takes it upon himself to inform Roberts of the contest after it has taken place.
Dolan is a young, garrulous, brash yeoman, who enjoys the fact that he is responsible for typing Roberts's letters requesting a transfer. He also is well informed about Navy regulations. During the liberty on Elysium, he gets drunk and brings a goat back with him as a mascot, which happens to be the property of an admiral.
Dowdy is a hard-bitten man between thirty-five and forty years old. He has some authority over the men and hands out their tasks. It is Dowdy's idea to award Roberts the brass palm tree.
Gerhard is one of the quieter crewmen. He is part of a deputation that appeals to Doc and Pulver to persuade Roberts to take Dolan off report. He explains how the men have turned against Roberts.
Lieutenant Ann Girard
Lieutenant Ann Girard is an attractive, blond nurse who is invited on the ship by Pulver, who plans to seduce her. When she discovers that the men have been spying on the nurses in the shower, she promptly leaves the ship.
Insigna is one of the crewmen. He is not noted for his intelligence, but it is he who discovers that the nurses can be spied upon with binoculars. Insigna does not get along with Mannion and starts a fight with him after quarreling over spying on the women. But by the time the two men return from Elysium Island, where they have taken part in the fight at the Army dance, they have become the best of friends.
Chief Johnson is the ship's chief petty officer. He is a big man of about forty years old.
Lindstrom is one of the crewmen. He tries to stop the fight between Mannion and Insigna, and he supplies the ribbon for the award that the men present to Roberts.
Mannion is a crewman who watches the women in the shower, while pretending to the others that no one is in the shower. He and Insigna are enemies but later become good friends. Mannion is the man appointed to present the award to Roberts; he made the medal himself in the machine shop.
Ensign Frank Pulver
Ensign Frank Pulver is an immature officer who likes to spend a lot of his time sleeping. He is timid but boasts of his sexual conquests, although Doc and Roberts do not believe him. He is scared of the captain and never puts into practice any of the pranks he conspires against him, such as leaving marbles in the captain's overhead so they will roll around and keep him awake at night, or putting a firecracker under the captain's bunk. Roberts teases him about the fact that he never finishes anything he starts out to do. After Roberts leaves the ship, Pulver is promoted to Roberts's position of cargo officer. After he hears of Robert's death, he finds the courage to stand up to the captain on behalf of the men.
Lieutenant Doug Roberts
Lieutenant Doug Roberts is the cargo officer, a position he has held for nearly two and a half years. Roberts has a college education and quit medical school in order to join the Navy. He is frustrated by the fact that he is on a cargo ship rather than in a combat role. He feels he has to prove himself by engaging in battle, and to that end he writes many letters to the authorities requesting a transfer. The captain refuses every request. He hates Roberts but cannot afford to lose him, since Roberts is a very competent officer.
- In 1955, Mister Roberts was made into a movie, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda as Mister Roberts, Jack Lemmon as Ensign Pulver, and James Cagney as the captain.
- A situation comedy version of Mister Roberts ran for one season on NBC during 1965 and 1966.
Roberts is highly respected by the men. They love that he protects them from the captain's pettiness and that he exercises his authority wisely. He never tries to bully the men, and he understands their boredom and frustration. Although at one point the men misunderstand him and think that he is getting tough with them because he wants a promotion, the misunderstanding is cleared up when Roberts tosses the captain's palm tree overboard. The men then show their loyalty and respect for Roberts by forging the captain's signature on a letter securing Roberts the transfer he wants. Before Roberts leaves, the men show their affection for him by giving him an award which they call the Order of the Palm.
Roberts is killed in a Japanese suicide bombing raid, but not before he has written a letter showing his great affection for the men of the AK-601.
Stefanowski is one of the crewmen who spies on the nurses in the shower. He joins in the fight in the first scene, on Insigna's side, and then fights with Wiley. Like the others, he is bored on the ship and wonders whether a man could get sent back to the States if he cuts off a finger. Stefanowski is the man who thinks up the words for the award the men give to Roberts.
Wiley is one of the crewmen. He joins in the fight on Mannion's side and then fights Stefanowski. During shore leave, he has a riotous time on Elysium.
Comradeship, Respect, and Loyalty
At the beginning of the play, there is some disharmony amongst the crewmen, as shown by the fight that breaks out between Mannion and Insigna, which also involves Wiley and Stefanowski. This scene suggests the corrosive effects of boredom and the denial of offshore leave. After the men return from Elysium, they have bonded as a group, and Insigna and Mannion are the best of friends. The change is so noticeable that Roberts remarks on it, saying that before, all he had was 167 separate men. Now he has a real crew.
The respect the men feel for Roberts is also a key thematic element. They like him because they feel he is their ally against the captain and he treats them fairly. He does not behave as if he is superior just because he is an officer. They only lose respect for him when they mistakenly think he is trying to curry favor with the captain in the hope of attaining a promotion. Respect is restored when Roberts shows his independence and tosses overboard the palm tree, a symbol of the captain's authority.
After this incident, there are no limits to the loyalty the men show to Roberts, or the ingenuity with which they express it. They take great risks in taking it upon themselves to send out a letter approving Roberts's transfer. They are even prepared to forge the captain's signature. They also display creativity and team spirit when they work together to create a going-away gift for Roberts. Roberts is touched by their warmth and generosity, and feels as loyal towards them as they do towards him, although he is unable to find the words to express his feelings for them until he writes to them from afar.
In contrast, the captain, who has a petty bureaucratic mind and delights in exerting a tyranny over the men, fails utterly to win the men's respect or loyalty. Respect is accorded only when it is deserved.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research how U.S. troops in the early 2000s cope with the boredom that can occur when they are inactive for long periods during deployment in a war zone.
- Research the 1945 battle for Okinawa. How did the outnumbered U.S. forces manage to emerge victorious?
- Write an essay about someone in your own life who serves as a "Mister Roberts" for you. What particular qualities does this person possess that win your admiration and respect? Why do you think the men in the play admire Roberts so much?
- Watch the movie version of the play and discuss some of the differences in scenes and dialogue between the play and the movie.
Roberts is presented as a mature man who is worthy of respect. In contrast, Ensign Pulver is immature. Pulver boasts about his imaginary female conquests, and although he pretends he wants to improve his mind, he rarely finishes reading any book he starts, nor does he ever follow through on the many pranks he plans against the captain. In fact, he is terrified of the captain, as Roberts well knows.
Roberts always encourages Pulver to show some mettle. In act 1, scene 2, Roberts tells Pulver that when he actually finishes one of his plans against the captain, "that's the day I'll have some respect for you—that's the day I'll look up to you as a man." At the end of act 2, scene 3, it seems for a moment as if Pulver's moment has come, since he shows he can make a firecracker work, and Roberts wants to help him make another one to put under the captain's bunk. But it turns out that Pulver has used up all his materials and cannot make another firecracker. He feels this failure keenly. It was his chance to become a man in Roberts's eyes, and although Roberts says he is proud of him, Pulver still feels upset because he thinks he let Roberts down.
This theme of attaining maturity as a man is alluded to again at the end of act 2, scene 5, as Roberts is about to leave the ship, having gained his transfer. He turns to Pulver and says, "Remember, I'm counting on you." Pulver nods. He knows exactly to what Roberts is referring.
After Roberts leaves, Pulver is promoted to cargo officer. Unlike Roberts, he allows himself to be dominated by the captain. When the captain cancels a movie in the evening, Pulver does not complain with sufficient vigor. Dowdy tells him he has to keep needling the captain. Pulver is reminded of this again when he reads Roberts's letter to the crew, in which Roberts alludes to Pulver's need to be more assertive. He writes, "So, Doc, and especially you, Frank, don't let those guys down. Of course, I know that by this time they must be very happy because the captain's overhead is filled with marbles."
It is only when Pulver learns of Roberts's death that he summons his courage to confront the captain. First he imitates Roberts's act of tossing the palm trees overboard, and then he bursts in on the captain, admits what he has done (just as Roberts had challenged him to do earlier), and demands to know why there will be no movie that night. It is clear that he is now ready to assume Roberts's role as defender of the crewmen.
Symbolism as a technique involves using an object, event, or person to represent an alternate meaning. For example, the small palm tree that sits in a five-gallon can outside the captain's cabin symbolizes the smallness of the tasks in which the ship is engaged. Roberts explains that the palm tree was awarded to the ship for "delivering more toothpaste and toilet paper than any other Navy cargo ship in the safe area of the Pacific." It is not the sort of award that men fight to win during a war. To the men, it is a reminder of their own boredom and sense of frustration and futility. The fact that the captain reveres his little trophy gives it an added significance: it represents the captain's vanity, his obsession with insignificant things, and his ambition, since he wants to use his ship's success as a stepping stone to attain the rank of commander.
The playwright ensures that as the symbol of the captain's misplaced sense of self-importance, the palm tree is subject to some disrespectful treatment. During one comic moment, the goat the men have brought back with them from Elysium chews on the tree. Another moment, the captain puts a twenty-four-hour armed guard on the palm trees (he replaced the one tree Roberts tossed overboard with two new trees) and issues shoot-to-kill orders to protect the trees. The comedy arises from the disproportion between the nature of the object and the captain's reverence of it.
In a neat twist, however, the men manage to turn the palm tree into a positive symbol. They call the brass medal they give Roberts the "order of the palm," because it is shaped like a palm tree. The brass palm tree signifies respect, affection, and real service, as opposed to the real palm tree which signifies only a petty man's delight in distinctions of no importance.
World War II
Mister Roberts begins a few weeks before V-E Day, which would place it some time during April 1945, when World War II was drawing to a close. Throughout the early months of 1945, Germany's position became more and more hopeless, as the invading Allied armies penetrated deeper into the country. In March, Allied armies advancing from the west reached the German city of Cologne, and in April, the Rhineland and the Ruhr were captured by the Allies. Meanwhile, the Russians were advancing from the east, and on April 23, 1945, they reached the northern and eastern suburbs of Berlin. German leader Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. On May 2, Berlin was captured, and on May 7, Germany surrendered unconditionally (as the crew of the AK-601 hear over the radio in Mister Roberts). In Britain, the royal family, as well as Prime Minister Winston Churchill assembled at the balcony of Buckingham Palace and greeted the huge crowds that had gathered in the streets to celebrate the end of war (this is the celebration the AK-601 crewmen hear described over the radio).
After V-E Day, the war in the Pacific against Japan still had to be won, but it had been apparent since the spring of 1945 that Japan could not resist for much longer. The USS Virgo, the model for the AK-601 in Mister Roberts, played a role in the Pacific war, carrying U.S. Marine Corps equipment and becoming a unit of the Fifth Amphibious Force that was preparing for the invasion of the Gilbert Islands. American forces under General MacArthur captured the Gilbert Islands in November 1943, and the Marshall and Admiralty Islands fell in early 1944.
The Philippines were re-taken in stages, with American troops entering Manila, the Philippine capital, in February 1945. U.S. forces also advanced relentlessly in the Pacific, capturing Iwo Jima in March. The Virgo, with Lieutenant Heggen aboard, was stationed off Iwo Jima at this time, replenishing destroyers.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1940s: The United States and Japan are at war. When the war ends in 1945, Japan submits to American occupation. Some Japanese military leaders are convicted of war crimes and are hanged. Japan is given a new pacifist constitution that prevents it from going to war.
Today: Japan and the United States are close allies. In January 2004, Japan sends a small contingent of soldiers to Iraq to support the U.S.-led coalition, which marks the first time since World War II that Japan has sent troops abroad, except as part of United Nations peacekeeping operations. The Japanese troops provide humanitarian services and do not engage in combat. The Japanese government announces plans to revise Article Nine of its constitution, which bans the use of force to settle international disputes.
- 1940s: World events are conveyed by newspapers and radio. News still moves comparatively slowly.
Today: Communications are faster and more diverse than ever. The Internet and television provide up-to-the-minute news, with almost constant updates, in ways not possible a half century earlier. Battle scenes are often shown live on television and are instantly seen around the world.
- 1940s: American public opinion wholeheartedly supports World War II, which is considered a war of national survival against an evil enemy.
Today: Few subsequent American wars command such unanimous public support as World War II did. According to many opinion polls, the country is about evenly divided regarding the war in Iraq, in which a U.S.-led coalition ousted the dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. The coalition occupies Iraq in mid-2004.
In mid-June, American forces captured the island of Okinawa, in the Ryukyu Islands. The Virgo, with Heggen still aboard, anchored in Okinawa for fifteen days and went to general quarters (a condition of readiness when naval actions are imminent) thirty-two times for air-raid alerts. It is at some point during the battle for Okinawa that Roberts, in the play, is killed by a Japanese suicide bomber.
By the time Okinawa was captured, American forces had complete dominance in the air, and Japan's factories and industries were steadily being destroyed by heavy bombing raids. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States called upon Japan to surrender or to face devastation of its homeland. On August 6, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing thousands of people. Exact estimates of the death toll vary, but the city of Hiroshima in the 2000s puts the number of dead by December 1945 at about 140,000. (Thousands died of injuries and illness caused by radiation in the months that followed the dropping of the bomb.) Immediately after the blast, four square miles of the city were reduced to rubble. Two days later, Russia declared war on Japan. The United States dropped a second atomic bomb, this time on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, on August 9. The day after this bombing, the Japanese asked for peace, and on August 14, Japan officially surrendered.
Mister Roberts was greeted with praise by reviewers when it began its run on Broadway on February 18, 1948, at the Alvin Theatre. A typical reviewer comment appears in Irwin Shaw's assessment of the play in New Republic: "one of the funniest plays ever seen on the American stage." John Lardner, writing in the New Yorker, declares the play is "almost as good as it could possibly be." It remains true to the "sardonic tone" of the novel from which it is adapted, says Lardner, as well as to its main point:
That a backwash war, funny and tragic as hell, was fought parallel with the shooting war; that the distance between the parallels could be five thousand miles in spirit as well as in space; and that the one kind of war damaged men who were caught in it as much as the other.
Lardner finds Roberts to be "a sweet and shadowy figure," less satisfying a character than those characters around him, although ably portrayed by Henry Fonda. Lardner argues that the only flaw in the play is that—unlike the story line in the episodic, plotless novel—the playwrights felt obliged to "invent a situation to tie up loose ends," and so came up with the plot centering around Roberts's deal with the captain and his subsequent misunderstanding with the men.
John Mason Brown in the Saturday Review offers the opposing view that Mister Roberts is improved by its adaptation from novel into play. Although some of the characters in the novel were eliminated in the stage version, Brown thinks what was offered in their place more than makes up for the loss, while the play still retains the appealing simplicity of the novel. Brown admires the earthiness of the language and the skilful handling of "the affection that men feel for men," an emotion often largely unexpressed. He singles out for particular praise the scene in which the men award Roberts the Order of the Palm. Brown also argues that although Mister Roberts might at times come close to slapstick, might lack importance, and is limited in emotional range by its fidelity to the young men it depicts, it is nonetheless highly effective in achieving what it sets out to do:
It is superlative theatre; a miracle of production in which the script, setting, acting, and direction all fuse to create one of the most uproarious, heartwarming, and yet touching evenings Broadway has yielded in many a long year.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses the collaboration between Heggen and Joshua Logan as they adapted Mister Roberts from novel into play.
Mister Roberts began its fictional life as a novel, but after the success of the book, Heggen became aware that it had the potential to be turned into a successful play. The story of how Mister Roberts metamorphosed from novel into play is a fascinating one and is told in John Leggett's imaginative biography of Heggen and Ross Lockridge, Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies, and in co-playwright Joshua Logan's memoir, Josh: My Up and Down, In and Out Life.
Not entirely confident of his own abilities to write the play he had in mind, Heggen at first turned to his friend, novelist Max Shulman, for assistance, and the two men agreed to collaborate. Shulman was aware that the novel was a series of largely unconnected episodes and that a play needed a real plot, with some dramatic tension. He thought this could be accomplished by creating a challenge to the Captain's authority that the men could use to blackmail him. So he invented an incident in which the Captain was discovered with a native girl in his quarters. Nothing even remotely like this occurred in the novel, and when they completed the first draft, Heggen was aware of what a poor effort it was. Shulman's agent agreed it was inadequate, as did producer Leland Hayward, who was interested in a dramatization of Mister Roberts and had asked to see the draft. Hayward complained that Shulman and Heggen had veered so far from the original book that the spirit of it had been lost. At Hayward's request, Heggen agreed to work on a new version, this time on his own. He sent the first act to Hayward, who thought it had promise but was, like the novel, a series of fragments, without any connecting links. He decided to put Heggen in touch with Logan, who was a highly successful director of many hit plays, including the famous Annie Get Your Gun.
Logan read Heggen's draft, and for the most part agreed with Hayward, but there was one scene which he felt Heggen had got exactly right: the scene in which the Captain has just refused to grant his men a liberty as they arrive at Elysium. In the novel, the Captain suddenly and inexplicably changes his mind and allows the liberty, and the entire incident lasts only for a paragraph. But in his draft for the play, Heggen had expanded this incident into what became the central moment of the play: the pact that the Captain strikes with Roberts, which happens because of Roberts's devotion to his men and his desire to secure them a liberty. The Captain will allow the liberty only if Roberts writes no more transfer requests. Logan saw that Heggen had created a dramatic scenario that would work on stage, and this enabled him to visualize the entire play. Logan then thought up the substance of the second act: how the crew would start to dislike Roberts because they thought he was angling for a promotion, and then they would by chance discover their mistake and in a burst of gratitude would hold a drunken contest to pick the best forgery of the captain's signature. (In the novel, Roberts simply receives an order to return to the United States for reassignment, without any subterfuge on the part of the crew. No explanation is offered as to why the official order comes through, after so many requests have been refused.)
Logan had all this in mind before he met Heggen, and when the two did meet, he soon convinced Heggen that he was the man who could turn Mister Roberts into a successful play. For three months during the fall of 1947, they worked together, Heggen staying at the Connecticut home of
Logan and his wife. They would start work at about five in the afternoon and work through the night until about six in the morning. According to Leggett, "Logan's strength was conceptual, seeing Mister Roberts in scene and narrative, while Tom's was in character and dialogue." Together they came up with a number of incidents not in the novel, including Roberts's bribery of the port director with whiskey taken from Pulver, which leads to the hilarious scene in which Roberts, Pulver, and Doc create fake Scotch out of Coca-Cola, iodine, and hair tonic. Logan also refined the crucial scene between the Captain and Roberts that Heggen had created in his original draft: Roberts agrees to show the Captain more respect in front of the men and to keep their meeting absolutely secret. Logan knew this would add more tension to the second act for both Roberts and the crew.
Another central point was the character of Roberts. Again, Logan was the instigator (at least according to his own account of their collaboration). He argued that Roberts should not be too perfect, that he had to possess a fatal flaw that could be cured at the end of the play. There was nothing like this in the novel, so it had to be created from scratch. Logan was following a rule of dramatic structure that one of his friends called Logan's Law, but which Logan had in fact learned from playwright Maxwell Anderson. Logan's Law stated that toward the end of any successful play, the protagonist must learn something about himself that changes his life for the better, as Logan relates in his autobiography Josh:
The audience must feel and see the leading man or woman become wiser, and the discovery must happen onstage in front of their eyes. And that doesn't mean a happy ending. If the hero is to die, then he just must make the discovery before he dies.
It is this change for the better that raises the moral stature of the protagonist and so allows the audience to grow too, along with the character.
Logan and Heggen decided that Roberts's flaw is his snobbery. He thinks that the men on a combat ship are superior to those on a cargo ship. So the play must emphasize and explain his desire to see combat, which is accomplished in the first two scenes. In the first scene, Roberts reports to Doc, in a passage that does not appear in the novel, that he saw a huge naval task force pass by the previous night. It is made very clear that he would give anything to be a part of that task force. Then in scene 2, Roberts confides to Doc his sense of inferiority about being on the AK-601: "We've got nothing to do with the war. Maybe that's why we're on this ship—because we're not good enough to fight." A moment later he says, "I've got to feel I'm good enough to be in this thing—to participate!" He sticks to his views even though Doc argues that physical heroism is overrated. Doc believes it is merely a reflex that three out of four men possess and would demonstrate if opportunity presented itself.
But at the end of the play, Roberts reveals in his letter to the men that he has discovered something he was not aware of before. Now that he is seeing real combat, he is full of admiration for the fighting men he is with, but he also realizes that the men who are involved in the more tedious tasks of war, "who sail from Tedium to Apathy and back again—with an occasional side trip to Monotony" have courage too. It takes courage and strength not to give into boredom, not to allow it to break the spirit. Roberts realizes that the men he sailed with on the ship they all called the "bucket" were every bit as brave as the men who have the opportunity to fill combat roles. It is not a matter of one set of men being better than the other. In this way, Roberts overcomes his snobbery. Logan called this letter Roberts's "selfrealization letter," and it was greatly expanded from the letter Roberts wrote to the men in the novel, which is presented only briefly and in a nondramatic way.
Logan also placed extra emphasis on the growth of Pulver from immature loafer to mature officer ready to defend his men. The novel ends with Pulver saying to the Captain, "I just threw your damn palm trees over the side." In the play this is altered only slightly, but it becomes the penultimate, not the final line. Logan added to it, "Now what's all this crap about no movie tonight?" which he hoped would show the audience that, as he put it, "Pulver had become Roberts, and therefore Roberts would live—and take care of us all." Logan's judgment proved accurate, because when Mister Roberts began its long run on Broadway, that line produced not only the biggest laugh but also a cheer from the audience. The message had come across.
Logan described the three months he worked on Mister Roberts with Heggen as the most exhilarating and hilarious time of his life, and Heggen also looked back on this period as the best of his life. However, their collaboration was not without its tensions. Heggen became uncomfortable with how much credit Logan—who co-wrote, directed, and co-produced the play—received for its success. Heggen also floundered when he tried to work on other projects. The creative energy that had produced the novel seemed to have dried up. At one point, Heggen believed he had become dependent on Logan's creativity, and he insisted that they collaborate on another play. Logan was happy to agree to this idea, but the troubled Heggen died, apparently by his own hand, before any real work could begin on it.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Mister Roberts, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Petruso holds a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Michigan and a master's degree in screen writing from the University of Texas. In this essay, Petruso examines issues of leadership in the play.
In Mister Roberts, issues of leadership and what makes a good leader are at the center of the play. The play is set on a U.S. Navy ship that has seen no action and is in the Pacific theater during World War II. Boredom and lack of hope run rampant throughout the ranks. The captain of the ship provides little positive leadership, while his lieutenant, Doug Roberts, compensates with some success for his captain's inadequacies.
To be a leader in the situation presented in the play means to be in charge yet also to answer to and carry out orders from those above. A leader in this position should also have such qualities as compassion and understanding for the men he leads. The captain of the AK 601 does not have these qualities. It is often said that "war is hell." This usually refers to the intensity of combat, but it can also refer to how boring inaction can be. The captain has isolated himself from his men and does not seem to care about their needs. He is more concerned with his potted palm than with the men who are serving on the ship.
The captain is really only worried about his own standing with his admiral and being promoted to full commander. He does not care much about how he gets this promotion, nor how shaky his current command really is. His potted palm is a metaphor for his leadership on the AK 601 and what he perceives is a symbol of his competence as a leader. The captain has a sign on the plant that identifies it as his property and orders his sailors to "keep away," even though it is their work that helped him earn the award. In the description that sets the scene of the play in act 1, scene 1, Chief Johnson is described as spitting in the palm's pot after making sure he is not seen. From the first, it is clear that the men do not respect the captain and show their disrespect in subtle and not so subtle ways. When Roberts decides once and for all to stand up to the captain, he tosses the palm overboard. After the captain replaces it with two new palm trees, Roberts's replacement, Pulver, also tosses the palm trees overboard after learning Roberts has died.
One of the captain's biggest failings as a leader comes in the way he treats his crew. He denies them liberty (a shore leave) for over a year. The only men allowed off the ship are officers conducting official business. The captain fails to see how this confinement negatively affects the men's morale as well as their psyches. The men are literally cooped up like animals on the ship. The longer the men are not allowed any breaks, the more they act out. In act 1, scene 1, the crew goes a little crazy when, using a spyglass, they see female nurses on a nearby island. The captain has also canceled the men's nightly movies for such minor transgressions as a sailor not wearing his shirt while working on deck, a pet peeve of the captain.
While the captain, through bad leadership, causes his crew to suffer, Roberts suffers even more. Roberts wants to be off the ship and in combat. He left medical school to fight in the war but is stuck in endless inactivity. To that end, Roberts has put in a request for transfer on a weekly basis before the action of the play begins. The captain repeatedly refuses to give his approval to it, meaning Roberts will not get it. If the captain would have compassion, Roberts would most certainly be gone. Roberts goes to great lengths in Mister Roberts to obtain his transfer and nearly goes crazy in the process. The captain believes that Roberts's presence is essential to his own promotion because the admiral complimented Roberts's abilities as a cargo officer.
The captain regularly seeks out Roberts to remind him that he is beneath him and that he, as captain, is in charge. At the beginning of act 1, scene 3, the captain is angry with Roberts when he will not respond immediately to the captain's order to see him. Roberts is busy overseeing the transfer of a load to another ship. Roberts's latest letter requesting a transfer upsets the captain because Roberts claimed there was "disharmony aboard this ship." The captain goes on to humiliate Roberts in front of his men and puts them all on report.
Though Roberts has little hope for himself, he wants his men to have it. The crew does not respect the captain, but they respect Roberts, who is much more of a leader among them than the captain. While talking about another matter in act 1, scene 1, the ship's doctor, referring to Pulver, tells Roberts, "He [Pulver] thinks you are approximately God." This is so because Roberts continually puts himself out on the men's behalf. In addition, in act 1, Roberts maneuvers to secure the men a liberty. After the liberty is announced in act 1, scene 4, the captain takes it away in act 1, scene 5. In the next scene, Roberts agrees to sacrifice his campaign to get transferred from the ship and promises to be more yielding to the captain in front of the men in order to secure their long-awaited shore liberty. He also agrees to allow the captain some credit for the leave. This selfless act will make for a happier crew, as Roberts acknowledges. However, because of the sacrifice he had to make to get the liberty for the men, Roberts's hope for his own happiness is nearly gone. He fears he will be stuck on the ship for the duration of the war.
Throughout Mister Roberts, Roberts shows how generous and compassionate he is. At the beginning of act 1, scene 3, though the captain orders no fresh fruit to be given to other ships, Roberts gives some to the crew who have not seen such delicacies in months. Roberts gives the captain some credit for it. When the captain learns of Roberts's generosity, he gives Roberts ten days in his room as punishment. However, because Roberts is too valuable, the captain does not enforce this order. Roberts also allows the men to take off their shirts because of the heat despite the captain's standing order to the contrary. Roberts does not partake of the liberty and remains on the ship as the duty officer. When the men go a little wild on shore by drinking excessively, breaking into the home of the local French consul, crashing an American Army officer's dance, and stealing a goat, Roberts deals with the consequences of their actions. Roberts is the liaison with the shore patrolmen, who bring the drunken men back to the ship. Roberts assures the patrolmen that the crew will be penalized for their actions. Though Roberts sacrifices for his men, he also has faults of his own, but not nearly as many as the captain.
While playwrights Heggen and Logan draw the captain with no redeeming qualities, they show Roberts's imperfections as well. Unlike the captain, Roberts knows he is flawed. It is this sense of humanity and awareness of self that helps make Roberts an effective leader. He knows that being stuck on the ship for months at a time is nearly intolerable. One way that Roberts demonstrates his own flaws is by sometimes putting his needs first. His obsession with being transferred to a different ship means leaving the crew at the mercy of the captain. Though Roberts works on getting the men a liberty at the end of act 1, scene 1, by going ashore himself to talk to someone, the trip also serves Roberts's own agenda. He is not trying to make the best of his situation in one sense: he is just trying to get out. Roberts sometimes takes his frustrations out on his men. When Dolan learns that the Navy needs experienced officers to transfer to ships, he types a letter for Roberts, not knowing about the private deal the captain and Roberts have made. Roberts will not sign it at the time and off stage puts Dolan on report for bothering him about it. Roberts later apologizes to Dolan and takes him off report, something the captain would never do.
Roberts finally gets his transfer because of his success as a leader among the ship's men. The crew risks their own freedom by faking a letter for Roberts asking for a transfer and forging their captain's approval. Just before Roberts leaves the ship, the crew makes him a crude medal shaped like a palm tree. His abilities as a leader pay off with his desired reward, though it also ends in his death as the ship he is transferred to is hit with a suicide-plane attack. This ending prompts the question of who really wins in the tug of war between the captain and Roberts, between the ineffective leader and the effective one. While the captain retains command of his ship, the crew feel no differently about him after Roberts is gone. He remains a very poor leader. Having served under Roberts changes the men. Roberts's leadership skills have ensured that his spirit lives on in them.
An undercurrent to the contrasting leadership skills of the captain and Roberts is social class. The captain is not educated. He worked in restaurants as a young man and came to the Navy after working in the merchant marine service. Roberts is educated, having spent time in medical school. The captain is threatened by Roberts's social standing, while the men are indifferent towards it; they only care about whomever will take charge and be fair about it. Repeatedly throughout the text of Mister Roberts, the captain expresses anger about those who have looked down upon him and takes this anger out on Roberts and, indirectly, the crew. The captain often throws out the fact that Roberts is college educated when the captain is talking down to him. For example, in act 1, scene 6, the captain says, "I hate your guts…. You think you're better than I am! You think you're better because you've had everything handed to you!" It is in this scene that the captain denies the men's liberty, but only gives it when he can make Roberts feel as bad he does. It might seem that Roberts is more developed as a character than the captain, but in fact it is that Roberts is more developed as a person and a leader than the captain will allow himself to be.
Source: A. Petruso, Critical Essay on Mister Roberts, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following review, Shaw singles out Logan's directing and calls Mister Roberts "one of the funniest plays ever seen on the American stage."
Although it is improbable that the last war will go down in history as the most amusing event of the century, Joshua Logan and Thomas Heggen, authors of Mister Roberts, have certainly used it as a basis for one of the funniest plays ever seen on the American stage. Taking the frail and pleasant little string of stories by Heggen as a starting point, they have shaped the material with a canny professionalism that approaches magic, into a roaring, full-fleshed play which leaves the audience limp, exhausted with laughter and profoundly satisfied.
After the first five minutes of the performance, a wonderful glow of anticipation settles on the spectator—a glow that comes from the realization that for this one night at least, the people responsible for your entertainment can do no wrong. There is the intoxicating feeling that everybody connected with Mister Roberts is at the very peak of his creative tide. If one person can be singled out for praise, it must be Joshua Logan, who, aside from aiding in the writing, directed the work with shrewdness, vitality and humor. He has obtained shining performances from veteran actors who are better in this than they ever have been, and he has made a host of youthful newcomers play as though they had been on the stage steadily since 1900.
The scenes, whirling through Jo Mielziner's ingenious and authentic representation of the Navy Cargo Ship, AK 601, are loud, lowdown, slapstick, wistful, bitter sentimental—it is all one to Logan. He handles each of them with the same sense of justice to its material, with boundless variety, with a strict observance of the proper limits of the character, and with a seemingly inexhaustible gusto.
Point of focus
Henry Fonda as Mister Roberts proves how bitterly the theater has suffered by losing its best actors to the films. He has a most difficult assignment: quiet in the midst of an almost continual riot, serious in a thunderstorm of comedy. He has to center and concentrate the attention of the audience upon himself or have the play lose itself in a series of disconnected gags. He does it by the use of a technique that is difficult to describe. He merely is absolutely real, and by that truthfulness he makes a simple grin, a weary lift of the shoulder, the flat and honest reading of an ordinary line, events of great dramatic importance upon the crowded and uproarious stage.
As the bed-loving Ensign Pulver, David Wayne, as nimble and artful an actor as we have around, paints a picture of a beautifully artless, naïve, hero-worshiping boy that is wildly funny and, at the end—when it has to be—gently touching.
William Harrigan, the absurd and monstrous captain of the ship, the enemy of every man aboard, the foe of all brotherhood and love, conducts his cranky feud with the crew with rasping integrity, his narrow, brooding virulence a perfect foil for the chaotic humors of the young men under his command.
Robert Keith, soaked in fruit juice and medicinal alcohol, gives his best performance to date. He is the ship's doctor—cynical, lounging, the invincible, irreverent civilian caught impermanently in the backwash of a war. A delicious affront to Annapolis and the American Medical Association, he adds the exact, necessary touch of shore-based acid to the seething dish.
The enlisted men of the crew make a mass effect upon the spectator. Individually, perhaps,
they are slighted, but the total impression is one of vitality and comic reality. You would not know any one of them if you met him at a bar, but you feel perfectly certain that as a group they could sail any vessel (cargo) anywhere and that the Navy would approve. They chip paint, stare through binoculars at a nurses' shower room, and wear their dungarees and dress whites as though they were all in the middle of their third hitch.
If there is a fault with Mister Roberts, it is one that it is not quite fair to bring up. The play is broader than it is deep, but the authors were not trying to be deep. It avoids tragedy firmly, even though (curious departure in a comedy) the hero dies in the end.
A war does not avoid tragedy, and a definitive play about war, even about such ludicrous rear areas as "Mister Roberts" covers, will somehow convey that fact. In a way, this criticism is a tribute, too. Mister Roberts is so good that it leads you to speculate, gently, on the breathless possibility of what it would have been like if it had been perfect.
Source: Irwin Shaw, "Theater: The Hilarious War," in New Republic, Vol. 118, March 8, 1948, pp. 29–30.
In the following review excerpt, the reviewer calls Mister Roberts "a rowdy, romantic, sometimes rather touching … wartime chronicle."
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Source: Time, "New Plays in Manhattan," in Time, Vol. 51, March 1, 1948, p. 63.
Brown, John Mason, Review of Mister Roberts, in Saturday Review, March 6, 1948, pp. 24–26.
Heggen, Thomas, Mister Roberts, Houghton Mifflin, 1946.
Heggen, Thomas, and Joshua Logan, Mister Roberts, Acting Edition, Dramatists Play Service, 1948.
Lardner, John, Review of Mister Roberts, in New Yorker, February 28, 1948, pp. 46–48.
Leggett, John, Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies, Simon and Schuster, 1974.
Logan, Joshua, Josh: My Up and Down, In and Out Life, Delacorte Press, 1976, pp. 240–70.
Shaw, Irwin, Review of Mister Roberts, in New Republic, March 8, 1948, pp. 29–30.
Krutch, Joseph Wood, Review of Mister Roberts, in Nation, April 10, 1948, pp. 402–03.
In one of the less laudatory reviews of the play, Krutch affirms the value of Mister Roberts as popular entertainment but offers the view that it is adolescent and naïve.
Logan, Joshua, Movie Stars, Real People, and Me, Delacorte Press, 1978.
This book contains some lively anecdotes about Logan's experiences directing Mister Roberts and also contributing to the movie version.
Phelan, Kappo, Review of Mister Roberts, in Commonweal, March 5, 1948, p. 521.
A short, enthusiastic review of the play, which Phelan regards as hilarious, moving, and sad. Phelan questions whether it should be rated as highly as some reviewers have done.
Smith, David P., "Introduction," in Mister Roberts, Naval Institute Press, 1992.
This introduction to the novel contains information about Heggen's life, work, and tragic early death.